Dec 4, 2007

On The Walker

Although it never really thrills us, aesthetically or in the more conventional genre sense, The Walker brings you right into a world that feels authentic and alluring and although it doesn’t leave you wanting more of Woody Harrelson’s Carter Paige III or the world he inhabits (perhaps because he’s being jettisoned from it at movie’s end) one slips easily into the narrative concerns, and as The Walker wears on and the corruption spreads further up the Washington food chain, one can’t help but admire how deftly director Paul Schrader has inserted some fascinating contemporary political concerns into a fairly conventional whodunit.

Playing something of a riff on the Richard Gere character in the director’s 1980 cult classic American Gigolo, Harrelson stars as a tall, gay escort for the daughters and wives of Washington’s elite, a “walker” in the modern lexicon. When he isn’t helping Lauren Bacall pick wallpaper of Lily Tomlin walk her dog, the scion of one of Virginia’s elite tobacconist families is struggling for the continued affections of his German boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu of Run, Lola, Run), a subversive artist who is struggling to make it in D.C.’s conservative art scene. After the weekly card game that is the central gathering for his various charges, Carter becomes implicated in the murder of a Washington lobbyist while dropping off a senator’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) with whom the man had been having an affair. She discovers him dead and he agrees to protect her, withholding from the police her involvement with the deceased in order to protect her husband’s (Willem Dafoe, in a bizarre cameo) political standing. Soon Mr. Paige is the ambitious prosecutor’s top suspect.

This is all fairly standard stuff and one gets the sense toward the beginning of the picture that Mr. Schrader, who was last seen directing an awkward, redacted “Exorcist” prequel, is going through the motions, fully enveloped in a stale, late career doldrum, struggling to make retreads of his previous work seem fresh. In keeping with his career long preoccupations, Carter Paige III is an outsider, implicated in crimes and obsessions that threaten his precarious social position, but remain somehow not quite as dangerous as the personal contradictions (daddy and granddaddy issues) that are actively consuming his very soul. Of course, his whole vibe is that he doesn’t really have one; The director has billed the movie as being about “A man who discovers he isn’t superficial” and indeed, superficially it is.

Schrader, the son of strict Calvinists, a man who didn’t see a movie until adulthood, the man who thought so deeply about the transcendental cinema of Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer, is always finding new ways to couch spiritual matters into the mechanics of the thriller, with wildly varying results. In recent work like Affliction and Auto Focus, these themes are brought to thrilling heights, reintroduced in invigorating new contexts and providing occasion for meticulous, daring performances by the leading men.

Yet, The Walker doesn’t reach quite as far, perhaps because it reveals itself to be Mr. Schrader’s most optimistic film in quite some time, its protagonist sparred from the messy self-destruction that so many of Mr. Schrader’s men fall victim to. In this way it feels a bit neutered, but make no mistake, it’s worldview is far from optimistic. Mr. Schrader’s specialty is still dark, unrelenting tales of alienated, sexually confused men, often at odds with a larger, diabolical system, most of whom fall prey to their own base natures, to the baggage that they bring to the narrative from incomplete, stunted lives and ideologies which prove unable to sustain themselves in an unforgiving and dangerous world. In The Walker revisits this type of narrative with its teeth slightly less sharpened.